Sunday, June 2, 2013

May Month in Review: Obama Easily Weathering Trifecta of Controversies Thus Far...And So Is Hillary (June 2, 2013)

If Barack Obama’s second term descends into squalor, scandal or gross ineptitude, as have so many of his post-World War II predecessors, historians may point to May, 2013 as a turning point, a month when controversy overwhelmed policy in the headlines.

But thus far he appears to be holding up quite well.  We are a long way from closing the books on the various controversies that have emerged – or, in some cases, re-emerged -- this month.  The Republicans have already initiated various hearings and are muttering about special prosecutors, and they will not let these issues die until they squeeze out every possible ounce of political damage.  But the early repercussions to both Obama and, perhaps more consequentially, Hillary Clinton, appear to be minimal, according to the data.

This month served up a trifecta of trouble for Obama.  First, Benghazi came back, with new testimony from Gregory Hicks, the number two State Department official at the Benghazi outpost, who charged that more military support should have been forthcoming during the attack.  Then came the revelation that the Justice Department, using subpoena power, had obtained two months' worth of telephone records from certain Associated Press journalists (related to an Al-Qaeda plot).  And finally came the news that the IRS appears to have targeted Tea Party and other conservative organizations for extra scrutiny in their not-for-profit application process.  Once again Washington was abuzz with that delicious Watergate-inspired phrase:  “What did he know, and when did he know it?” 

I said these issues “re-emerged” because the NY Times reported that Tea Party allegations of IRS targeting first emerged in March, 2012; Congressional hearings were held, a few articles were written, but no one (including the GOP Presidential candidates) turned it into a campaign issue.  And Benghazi, of course, has waxed and waned as an issue ever since the incident itself.

But, as of now, here are the facts with respect to the impact of these issues on voters:

·         Americans are not transfixed by either the Benghazi or the IRS stories.  According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who are following these stories is below the average of over 200 stories Gallup has measured over the last two decades.

% Following

Very/Somewhat Closely
Average of 200 stories
Benghazi hearings
IRS news

·         Neither President Obama’s nor Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings have moved substantially when comparing pre/post data, Obama losing a point and Clinton losing 3 points.  (Obama’s data reflects seven polls from May 1 to May 9 compared to 25 polls from May 10 to May 30, with the defining point being roughly when all three controversies hit.  Clinton’s polls are far sparser, with only three polls, by Quinnipiac, PPP and CNN providing clear pre/post measures, each having polls both in the February/March timeframe and in mid-May.) 

      Approval Rating %


Hillary’s head-to-head results versus the major Republican contenders are all virtually unchanged (holding a  10-point lead over Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) and her favorability ratings among Democrats remain astronomical and unchanged.

Nate Silver and others have suggested that the stability in Obama’s number could reflect offsetting impacts:  the strengthening of the economy masking the “full” effect of the controversies.  But we are likely talking very small effects canceling out, rather than large offsetting trends.

·         Americans trust Hillary Clinton more than Congressional Republicans when it comes to Benghazi.  A Gallup poll indicates that 49% of Americans trust Hillary more on the issue compared to 39% who are more trusting of Congressional Republicans.

·         While Republicans overwhelmingly believe that Benghazi is a bigger scandal than either Watergate or Iran Contra….

 % Believing

Which Was Worse
Benghazi/Iran Contra

·         …about 40% of Republicans do not know where Benghazi is, which indicated, to me, that they are grabbing onto the latest negative story rather than expressing genuine outrage based on in-depth knowledge of the underlying issues supposedly at stake.

 % Believing

Benghazi is There
Not Sure

It is certainly possible that more damaging information on these issues could come out in the course of Congressional investigations.  But for now it appears that Republicans are losing the battle to turn these issues into major wounds to the Obama Administration or to Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 candidacy.

The brouhahas did serve to deflect attention from one issue worthy of it:  the debt.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office produced a revised 2013 deficit estimate that was $200 million lower than the previous estimate, down to $642 billion, only 4% of GDP, with the likelihood that it will further shrink to 2% of GDP by 2015, generally seen as a sustainable level.  On top of that, the widely quoted conservative economic paper by two Harvard economists that claimed that economies tended to slow when debt exceed 90% of GDP was discredited.  Finally, Europe, pursuing the type of strict austerity measures championed by conservatives, reported a sixth consecutive quarter of negative GDP.

Was that the sound of Paul Krugman clicking his heels?  The reduced deficit has postponed a potential debt ceiling battle from summer to fall, and furthermore has Republicans fighting amongst themselves about the value of another stand-off (John McCain versus Marco Rubio, the ultimate “past versus future” battle).

The debt/deficit issue along with its twin, “no new taxes” has been essentially the main pillar of the Republican message for years now.  And it is losing steam.  What now, GOP?

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